So when the question is posed in the October Ensign at p. 79, “I have heard that changes have been made to The Book of Mormon since it was first published. What was changed and why?”, we have more evidence than ever before to answer this clearly and comprehensively.
The Ensign, limited by space and audience, gives a few good examples of inadvertent copying errors that were subsequently corrected in later editions, but this doesn’t really get at the heart of the issue, which concerns deliberate changes to the text. There have been several thousand of these since 1830, almost all of which are grammatical revisions such as which to who, or was to were.
Very, very few of these affect the meaning at all, and there has been no reworking of the Book of Mormon’s complicated narratives or extensive sermons. In fact, there are only eleven instances where Joseph Smith added or changed a few words to clarify doctrine or a name.
I do not know why the Lord saw fit to reveal The Book of Mormon in a non-standard grammatical form, but that’s what happened, and Joseph Smith himself smoothed out much of the language in the 1837 and 1840 editions (he even deleted 46 instances of “it came to pass”!). Thanks to Skousen’s work, The Book of Mormon is probably the most thoroughly documented scriptural text in history, meaning that we can track its progress from its first written form to the present official version in minute detail.
Consequently, we can be sure that The Book of Mormon as we have it today is virtually the same text that Joseph first dictated to his scribes, aside from grammatical updating. If you are interested, here is a photographic reprint of the 1830 edition that you can read online, and Skousen’s Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (published by Yale University Press in 2009) gets us as close as humanly possible to the original moment of revelation. For more on Skousen’s work, you can check out a four-part series that ends here here and then follow the links at the bottom to the earlier installments.
And this webpage at the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) has links to several great articles on the subject of changes in The Book of Mormon, all instantly available at the click of a mouse.
The October Ensign (p. 79) reminds us that the present chapters and verses were added later in the history of the text (in 1879 to be exact; Joseph Smith only read The Book of Mormon in paragraphs).
It is also worth noting that the punctuation was introduced by John Gilbert, the non-Mormon typesetter for the 1830 edition. This means that the divisions into clauses and sentences were not part of the original revelation.
Sometimes this can make a difference in how we read. For example, Elder Andersen observes on p. 43 that in The Book of Mormon, “the specific roles of women and daughters are to some extent unmentioned,” which is why we treasure those few verses where they are highlighted, and why the praise of the young stripling warriors for their mothers is quoted not once, but twice in the special issue (pp. 45 and 46): “”We do not doubt our mothers knew it” (Alma 56:47).
This is intelligible — it indicates that the young men were sure that their mothers had testimonies — but Royal Skousen has argued that it would make more sense if there was some sort of punctuation break between the words doubt and our: “We do not doubt; our mothers knew it.” Or, in other words, “We do not doubt [that God will deliver us; after all,] our mothers knew it” — a sentiment that fits the context a little better (and still honors mothers). Ultimately, their faith was in God, not in their mothers, but the two elements were certainly closely related. See Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of
Look for Part 2 of this article to appear in a couple days in Meridian.
Grant Hardy is the editor of The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois Press, 2003) and the author of Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 2010). His most recent publications include the Oxford History of Historical Writing, Vol. 1 and Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition, a 36-lecture cd/dvd course produced by the Great Courses. Hardy is a professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.
 1 Ne. 11:18, 21, 32, 12:18, 13:40; 20:1, 2 Ne. 30:6, Mosiah 21:28, Alma 5:48, 13:9, Ether 4:1. The exact changes are specified in appendices in both my Reader’s Edition and in Skousen’s Earliest Text.